Ignoring the disapproval of her mother as a child in the early 2000s, Un Sreya used to spend many of her days at the army barracks in Takhmao City placing bets with her father’s military friends over games of petanque.
“I played there a lot and quickly got good. I used to play with the other soldiers but my mother would complain because I am a woman and she thought that I shouldn’t be playing,” Ms. Sreya said on Thursday.
“I would bribe my mother with 10,000 riel [about $2.50] to keep her quiet and then I would go and win,” she said.
When Ms. Sreya was picked for the national team in 2004 and began returning home with medals and prize money, her mother’s initial reservations subsided.
“She’s very surprised that I went on to achieve fame through the sport. We had a hard life before and now it’s better because of this sport,” she said.
Ms. Sreya was speaking on the sidelines of the 19th Asian Petanque Championships at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium after the Cambodian women’s triple team—all of whom are in the military—had just thrashed Singapore 13-1 in their opening game of the tournament.
Teams from 12 countries are participating in the three-day competition, with some of the stiffest competition coming from the former French colonies of Southeast Asia. The countries will face off in categories including triples, and the singles version of the competition, called shooting.
Petanque, a form of lawn bowling in which players throw metal balls in an attempt to land closest to the jack, a smaller ball placed at the beginning of each round, is one of the few sports in which Cambodia has achieved international success in recent years. Ms. Sreya’s teammate and mentor, Ke Leng, picked up her second world championship victory in Bangkok last month.
Inside the grounds of the dilapidated Department of Railways on Russian Boulevard on Thursday afternoon, a group of workers, soldiers and their friends huddled around a cluster of silver balls with an improvised tape measure to ascertain whose ball was closer to the jack.
Sitting on a bench watching the game, Sdoeung Vinn, 52, who was a member of the national team in the 1990s and 2000s, said that although he was born after the French exit from Cambodia in 1953, his family members had told him that petanque had been a way for colonial officials and Cambodian workers to bond.
“This sport is the legacy of the elder generation,” Mr. Vinn said. “The Cambodians and the French would play together after work. This was often the only place they would meet with each other.”
That friendship has continued. Mr. Vinn said that while he was on the national team, he participated in several friendly competitions between Cambodians and visiting teams from France.
Despite its reputation as a laid-back sport, petanque is still attracting Cambodian youth, and is far more than a passive pastime for elders, Ms. Sreya said.
“I feel confident playing on home soil with our home fans cheering us,” she said. “Overseas it’s hard because they boo at us and this can anger us and it spoils our concentration.”